My beautiful father was a proud man, but when he died I said 'thank you': How a loving daughter changed her mind about euthanasia
When I flew back home to New Zealand last October I expected – or perhaps hoped – that my father John would already be dead.
He had been diagnosed 11 years previously with a cancer that had spread outside the prostate. But after an operation, he defied the odds and had enjoyed remarkably good health until last April.
Then, aged 85, he crashed, rather than slid, towards death as the cancer returned to claim him with a vengeance. Yet it took him six slow and dreadful months to die.
Painful end: Jo with her father John at her wedding in 1994
‘Your father isn’t really here,’ my mother warned me on the phone. When I arrived from London, where I have been living for 21 years, I saw what she meant.
I was horrified that my beautiful father – once a proud, dignified and strapping 6ft 1in man who had been a tennis and snooker champion and ran his own hairdressing business for years – was reduced to a parchment-like husk who could no longer eat or speak.
Last week’s report from the Commission on Assisted Dying, which recommends that anyone given 12 months or less to live should have the legal right to ask a doctor to help them kill themselves, brought back the horror of my father’s last days. It also reinforced my determination that I would never die this way myself. ‘You wouldn’t put a dog through this,’ I remember telling my mother.
'Dad had been inching towards death for
months. It was so excruciatingly painful to watch that for the next few
nights, against every daughter’s instinct, I hoped that he would die.'
Dad had been inching towards death for months. It was so excruciatingly painful to watch that for the next few nights, against every daughter’s instinct, I hoped that he would die. More importantly, I knew Dad would also have despised the state he had been reduced to. He hated indignity.
I have always cautiously supported euthanasia. I liked the idea of controlling my own destiny. But euthanasia was never discussed in our family. Dad was a staunch Roman Catholic and would never have countenanced breaching what he would have deemed God’s will. A placid and accepting man, one of his greatest qualities was an overwhelming contentment with his lot.
But almost a month before he died, he had asked me on the phone to be a pallbearer at his funeral. With his voice breathless and fading, he added: ‘I’m ready now to go to the last staging post, Jo.’ But his God had not listened.
Though doctors assured us he was in no pain, his body was frozen in what seemed like a prelude to the stiffness and stillness of death.
Months earlier he had been fitted with a catheter, which gave him constant urine infections. He had been put on a drip of morphine and wore a large wraparound nappy.
Undignified: For many terminally ill people, their final days can bring pain and humiliation (Posed by model)
Dad also suffered the indignity of being washed daily by hospice nurses – though I do not wish to undermine the extraordinary job they did in helping my mother care for him at home at a time when he could no longer bear to be touched.
What horrified me most, however, was how he had been robbed of himself. ‘I hate seeing him like this,’ my mother said in his last days. ‘But I can’t bear the thought of him going away and leaving me. At least he’s still here.’
It is a conflict that will strike a chord with anyone who has watched a loved one die.
'Before watching my father die, I knew
little about the process of death. I knew it would not be pretty, but I
had not expected this.'
As in Britain, the euthanasia debate rages in New Zealand, where it remains illegal to assist anyone to die. The Anglican church has given some support to the principle of euthanasia, but the Roman Catholic church remains vehemently opposed.
Before watching my father die, I knew little about the process of death. I knew it would not be pretty, but I had not expected this.
Despite the cancer, Dad’s heart was strong and in the final days he was denied water on the advice of the hospice nurse as this would have prolonged his miserable twilight existence.
But one morning he reached for it, making sounds and indicating he wanted a drink. My mother moistened his mouth with a damp swab but even this liquid was enough to collect in his throat and encourage an awful gargling rattle. His body, slowly shutting down, had lost the ability to swallow.
Dying days: Many people have a long struggle before dying
As hearing is the last faculty to go, my brother explained to my father that by giving him no water, he would die more quickly. Was that what he wanted, he asked him My father seemed to understand the question. He did not ask for water again.
But watching him die by starvation and dehydration caused us immeasurable pain. ‘I shouldn’t have given him the water,’ my mother said, weeping with recrimination, herself skeletal with worry from nights spent listening for that final breath. Nobody really knew what was the best thing to do.
When the end came, just before 3am on October 26, my mother, my brother and I were perched on her single bed, just a few feet from Dad’s, in the home my parents had shared for most of their 57 years of married life.
My mother and brother wept but I – should I now feel ashamed – threw my hands in the air and said: ‘Thank you.’ I felt an odd sense of elation, as if I, too, had been released, though within hours this had transformed to a deep sadness.
This experience has been one of the most traumatic of my life. Before, though I supported euthanasia, I was wary of the minefield that lies in the details of protecting the ill and the dying from greedy relatives or those who seek to dispatch the weak prematurely and even against their will. But after witnessing my father’s tormented demise – despite the fact he allegedly suffered no pain – I am now passionately convinced of the need for a change of legislation.
I think even my father might have changed his views. Most of us imagine our own end as either sudden – from a bullet or a bus – or a peaceful passing, aided by modern drugs.
Dad could never have anticipated having such a long struggle to die. Certainly he did not ‘fade away’, as some writers have termed death. My father may not have been in pain, but the degradation he endured was of an entirely different and almost equally disturbing nature.
Euthanasia would give those with chronic and dreadful terminal illnesses the opportunity to avoid the final months of pain and decline and give them some control over their own death.
It would also free those who chose this route from the guilt of burdening loved ones with their care. My father’s most frequent phrase in his last months was the plaintive cry: ‘But I’m being so much trouble.’
I don’t believe Dad would have chosen to significantly shorten his life. But had it been discussed when he was fit, I think, in those final weeks when he announced he was ‘ready to go’, he would have accepted any assistance to do so.
One definition of the word euthanasia is a ‘quick and merciful death’. My father’s death was neither quick nor merciful.